7 Things That Could Happen If You Keep Rubbing Your Eyes

Updated: Oct. 06, 2020

Rubbing your eyes may provide temporary relief, but the practice may also cause eye disease, worsen existing conditions, and increase the risk of infection.

The potential dangers of rubbing your eyes

If you’ve got bad allergies or stare at a computer screen all day, sometimes nothing feels more satisfying then giving your eyes a good rub. There’s a reason it feels therapeutic: Rubbing eyes stimulates the vagus nerve, which can slow down your heartbeat and relieve stress. (Here are ways to make stress management much easier.)

That said, rubbing eyes too often and too vigorously may result in damage, including exacerbating existing conditions and increasing your risk of infection.

Here are seven things that can happen if you keep rubbing your eyes.

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You may increase the risk of a serious eye disease

“Chronic eye rubbing can result in the weakening of the cornea and the distortion of the cornea called keratoconus,” according to Mark Mifflin, MD, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Continuous rubbing of the corneal tissue can cause it to thin and become more cone-shaped. If the damage is severe enough, you could require a corneal transplant.

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You may scratch your cornea

That eyelash or piece of dust in your eye is irritating, and it’s tempting to rub it. But that can make the situation worse. You run the risk of scratching your cornea, a common condition that typically heals in a day or two but can result in an ulcer if left untreated, according to the Mayo Clinic. Use water or saline to rinse your eye instead. Plus, follow these 13 tips for healthy eyes.

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You may make your glaucoma worse

If you already have this serious eye condition, rubbing may make it worse. Glaucoma is most often caused by an increase in pressure inside the eye, known as intraocular pressure (IOP). This pressure can damage the optic nerve and eventually cause vision loss, and research suggests that rubbing the eyes can increase the pressure inside the eye. For patients taking glaucoma medications, the Glaucoma Research Foundation suggests that you do not rub your eyes, even if the medications may make them feel itchy and blurry. (Here are some more shocking diseases that eye doctors find first.)

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You may make your nearsightedness worse

People with progressive myopia—better known as nearsightedness—may find that rubbing eyes results in worse vision. The condition has become increasingly common throughout the last few decades. Nearly 9.6 million people are what is known as highly myopic and their vision tends to get worse over time, according to a 2016 study published in Ophthalmology. Don’t miss these 24 easy ways to improve your vision.

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You may increase the risk of infection

No matter how often you wash or sanitize your hands, they can still pick up thousands of germs every day. Touching your eyes with your hands can transfer bacteria that can cause conjunctivitis, or pink eye, according to the American Optometric Association. If your eyes get infected, a warm compress may help soothe it.  (Here’s what you need to know about eyelid dermatitis.)

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You may make your eyelid go lax

Rubbing eyes can injure more than your eyeballs themselves. “The eyelid can, over time, lose elasticity,” Dr. Mifflin says. “That’s a less serious problem, but still not something we want to happen.” Is there any safe amount of rubbing your eyes? Dr. Mifflin recommends that you apply the same amount of pressure to your eyes that you would if you were drying your face with a towel.

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You may get bloodshot eyes and dark circles

These may seem like cosmetic concerns, but if you rub your eyes hard enough, you might cause tiny blood vessels in your eyes to break. That could result in bloodshot eyes. Dark circles can appear due to inflammation from continuous eyelid rubbing, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The appearance of dark circles post-eye rubbing is known as post-inflammatory pigmentary alteration. (Next, read about these 13 other secrets your eye doctor won’t tell you.)